2016 QMJHL first round playoff preview: Part 2 – the maybes

·Mike Sanderson
Moncton Wildcats goaltender Keven Bouchard might be the most impactful player in all of the first round of the QMJHL playoffs. (CP / Ghyslain Bergeron)
Moncton Wildcats goaltender Keven Bouchard might be the most impactful player in all of the first round of the QMJHL playoffs. (CP / Ghyslain Bergeron)

Welcome to Buzzing The Net’s preview of the first round of the QMJHL playoffs.

The OHL and the WHL have regional playoffs and conferences to fight though, but the QMJHL wants none of that in their own #RoadToRedDeer, so they opt for the 1-to-16 straight league seeding format. Here at Buzzing The Net, we’ll look at the first round of the Q playoffs in a two-part series, starting with the top contenders and ending with the middle matchups.

All series start with Games 1 and 2 on Friday and Saturday.

(5) Gatineau Olympiques (49-15-3-1, 102 points) vs. (12) Québec Remparts (26-32-8-2, 62 points)

Season series: Gatineau (3-1-0-0). Prediction: Olympiques in 4.

Series in a sentence: A series that should be short and may be better remembered for the drama from the two coaches off the ice rather than anything on it.

Why the Olympiques should win: The Olympiques are built for the playoffs, with a devastating top pairing on the blue line and a defensive system played to a tee thanks to veteran coach Benoît Groulx.

Groulx won’t let the team face any adversity; he sucks it up all for himself, as he has in everyotherpressure situation his teams have faced. He’s already in mid-playoff form, calling out Rouyn-Noranda coach Gilles Bouchard for pulling Chase Marchand after he locked up the goals-against-average title after two periods in the Huskies season finale against Gatineau last Saturday.

The acquisition of defenceman Nicolas Meloche might have been the most surprising and best trade made during the mid-season trading period. Meloche is believed to already be a top blueliner, and he’s great at every facet of the game. Pair him up with Nashville Predator pick Alexandre Carrier and there’s a killer balance of offence and defence. Add defensive defenceman Guillaume McSween, who brings Memorial Cup experience, and the fact that all their back end is six feet or taller, save Carrier, and that’s a big and bruising blue line.

Up front, Vitalii Abramov was by far the best scoring rookie this season, and he’s only 17. Add veterans Yan Pavel Laplante, Gabryel Paquin-Boudreau and Yakov Trenin, and the forward group is scary in the offensive end.

Remparts goalie Callum Booth is hurt to start the series against the ’Piques, so Evgeny Kiselev, a waiver pickup from the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, will have to shoulder the load.

How the Remparts can stretch out the series: The Olympiques have two rookie netminders inMathieu Bellemare andMark Grametbauer. They both performed very well in the regular season, but the playoffs are a different animal. The Remparts could use their remaining offence, led by Mathieu Boucher and Bronson Beaton, to exploit it.

The Remparts sent three players – forward Ethan Crossman and defenders Dakotah Woods and Bryce O’Brien – home this week as the team prepares for the playoffs. O’Brien is dealing with mono, but the other two are healthy and coach and GM Philippe Boucher sent the trio home for “motivation” issues, saying they should have cut them a while ago. With the dead weight cut, the Remparts may be a more motivated group, knowing that being shown the door is an option if their effort isn’t up to standard.

(6) Moncton Wildcats (42-20-6-0, 90 points) vs. (11) Victoriaville Tigres (27-35-3-3, 60 points)

Season series: Moncton (1-0-1-0). Prediction: Tigres in 7.

Series in a sentence: The Tigres are a popular upset pick thanks to a poor second half by the Wildcats, but Moncton has the personnel to make a long run.

Why the Wildcats should win: They built for this season, picking up forwards Vaclav Karabacek, Campbell Pickard,Joey Richard, defenceman Cody Donaghey and goaltenderKeven Bouchard at the mid-season trading period.

Conor Garland was the top scorer in the QMJHL for the second straight season, and won the CHL scoring title outright with 128 points. He had a point in every road game in the regular season, and had a point in his first 28 games of the season. He is the lifeblood of the offence, but there is enough talent in the forward ranks to keep the opposing team honest.

The Wildcats play at the top of their game when they control the play in the corners and behind the opposing net, and when their defencemen create mismatches in the offensive zone. Defencemen like Adam Holwell, Austin Kosack, Jacob Sweeney, Zach Malatesta and Donaghey are all speedy and agile, and are strong in both ends of the rink.

Why the Tigres could win: The most important player on either side in this series is Wildcats netminder Bouchard. He’s been up and down since he was acquired from the Drakkar for a big price (with a fourth rounder for two seconds and Eric Leger). He was grabbed to be the bona fide starter for the playoffs, but he only has five games of playoff experience, all with the Val-d’Or Foreurs behind Antoine Bibeau and Etienne Montpetit.

Bouchard, when he’s on his game, is a great angles goalie with great positioning. When he’s off, he can get distracted and give up bad goals. The Tigres goalies, Olivier Tremblay and James Povall, are both better than the bottom level of Bouchard’s talent level, and could be a factor the other way.

Moncton had four goaltenders who won eight games or more with the team this season. Two of them are no longer with the team (Zach Fortin, Sébastien Dupré) and the other, Blade Mann-Dixon, is a calm goalie who stands a generous 5-foot-7, so while he’s been solid, he gets beat up high. Goaltending will be the biggest factor in the series, and the Tigres star forwards Maxime Comtois, Alexandre Goulet, Mario Huber and Pascal Laberge could take advantage.

Kevin Klima is also likely out for the series, so that’s a big loss to the Wildcats’ depth scoring.

(7) Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (44-19-4-1, 93 points) vs. (10) Chicoutimi Saguenéens (24-35-7-2, 57 points)

Season series: Tied (1-1). Prediction: Screaming Eagles in 6.

Series in a sentence: Cape Breton’s depth will overwhelm the Julio Billia-and-Nicolas Roy show.

Why the Screaming Eagles should win: The Screaming Eagles came into the year with a deep blueline and a thin offence behind the Russian duo of Evgeny Svechnikov and Maxim Lazarev, and bigPierre-Luc Dubois.

A few moves later, bringing in scorers Michael Joly, Giovanni Fiore and Massimo Carozza, and now the team is a well-balanced unit with solid depth on both the front and back ends. The Eagles were the league’s third-highest scoring team in the league this season, and they did it with seven 20 goal scorers, including Joly’s 47 and Dubois’s 42.

The Sags don’t have a lot of depth behind big Roy, Jonathan Bourcier, Dmitry Zhukenov and blueliner Frédéric Allard. The Screaming Eagles can shut down that trio of offence, even if head coach Yanick Jean puts all three on different lines, and Allard can’t play the whole game.

Cape Breton has won their last seven in a row, and eight of their last 10. They come in very hot.

Why the Saguenéens could win: They have the best goalie, and the playoffs are a showcase for great goalies. Billia has stolen games for the Saguenéens all year long. Cape Breton goalkeeper Alexandre Bélanger has had a middling Q career until this season, but his numbers still aren’t as good as Billia, who dominated the league’s save percentage chart with a .919, eight points ahead of Chase Marchand.

The Saguenéens will be in tough, but could rope-a-dope their way to a couple of wins. They were a better team on the road than at home, and if you take out their nine-game losing streak to start the year, they were a .636 hockey team.

Jean is a very smart coach, especially in-game, and can make the adjustments necessary to exploit any advantage he can get. Dubois will miss Game 1 with the tail-end of a late season suspension. Having him out of the lineup then back in for Game 2 could shift the chemistry of the Eagles enough for Jean to find an opportunity to attack.

(8) Rimouski Oceanic (54-9-3-2, 113 points) vs. (9) Charlottetown Islanders (27-39-2-0, 56 points)

Season series: Tied (1-1). Prediction: Islanders in 6.

Series in a sentence: The Islanders are a dangerous team with Daniel Sprong in the lineup, and he will be the difference in the series.

Why the Oceanic should win: They have the experience from last season’s President’s Cup winning squad. Eight players from last season’s winning team are back for the Oceanic. The blueline is filled with veterans, like Simon Bourque, who had a great step-forward season in a bigger role, along with Andrew Picco, Beau Rusk and Evan Scott.

Louis-Philip Guindon is back in goal for one final run, one of the few goaltenders who can steal a game or even a series for his team. Guindon took the reins from Philippe Desrosiers for the majority of the 2015 playoffs and went 11-1 in his 15 appearances, with a goals-against-average under two and a save percentage of .926.

Guindon will have a tougher time this time around, but the overager was up to the task this season, with a 2.81 GAA and a .905.

Why the Islanders could win: Charlottetown has been the tale of two seasons, the 2015 and 2016 versions.

The early season team had a lot of trouble scoring and keeping pucks out of the net trying to get used to new head coach Jim Hulton. After the return of Sprong from the Pittsburgh Penguins and netminder Mason McDonald from Team Canada, the team caught fire led by their number 11. Sprong had 46 points in 33 games playing lights-out offensive hockey with newly-acquired Samuel Blais and Jake Coughler and the team went on a roll.

The Islanders won seven-in-a-row to head to the playoffs, including a pair of great starts from backup goalie Matt Welsh, and everyone contributing on all cylinders.

Alexis Vanier is a solid blueliner who adds a strong defensive presence along with a big point shot, and slots in with Luc Deschênes, Dexter Weber and Will Thompson in a solid top-4.

The Islanders go where Sprong goes, and he’s as good as ever. He had 11 points in 10 playoff games last year, so he steps it up in the post-season.

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